I got to meet with Mark Shuman, the director of “Morphine: Journey of Dreams,” a documentary about a band from the ‘90s. Even though it was my first time interviewing a director, the conversation came easy from across the table at Manuel’s downtown.
Interview conducted by Lauren Keim
Shuffle: So tell me a little more about the movie and the band Morphine.
Mark Shuman: Morphine was an incredible band, and to this day, is still critically acclaimed. The film traces their career from the inside out. It’s basically all the surviving members of the band and the girlfriends and the managers and the tour managers and essentially traces the arc of their career, culminating with the death of their lead singer at a concert in Palestrina, Italy. The film has interviews with Joe Strummer from the Clash, Henry Rollins and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Everyone, except a few TV reports, had a direct connection to the band.
I stayed away from making a behind-the-music type of film, without a lot of flashy commentary. I tried to make it a heartfelt film about the band. It was filmed across the world from New York, Maine, Austin, Rome, and Palestrina. Essentially I shot, directed and produced it. It took about five years to put it all together.
Shuffle: When did you first meet Morphine?
Mark: Back in the early ‘90s, I owned a club called Electric Lounge in Austin. It was at 5th and Lamar, where the Spring Tower is now. In November of 1993 they showed up, and this is kind of covered in the film, but they were at a point where they were doing shows and barely anybody was showing up. Then they were showing up at cities and would be sold out. We were one of the first early shows that were sold out. It was also the first time I had seen Morphine live and they’re just phenomenal live. In fact, that’s one of the things that I do in the movie is I use a lot of performances. I let them play out a little longer than most music docs and don’t have people talking over it so people can actually appreciate the music.
Shuffle: What inspired you to do a documentary about them?
Mark: So the club was open for another five years and during that time we had become friends with them. Even though they played at our club once or twice, they’d hang out there, or we’d pick them up from the airport. One of the things that I noticed was Dana Colley, the saxophone player, was always writing in these little journals. Finally one day I asked him, “What are you doing, man?” He showed me one that was filled with writings and Polaroid pictures he had taken from on the road. I always thought about that.
Years later, after Mark had died and they had done a memorial tour for him, I was at SXSW when someone texted me a picture of someone on stage wearing an Electric Lounge t-shirt. Turns out it was Dana. I hurried over and started catching up with him. I asked if they had done a documentary, and if he would be open sharing those journals, and that’s how it all started.
Shuffle: So you had mentioned earlier that the story isn’t just about the lead singer, Mark Sandman, but the band as whole. How did you go about doing that in your film?
Mark: I let them each tell their story. I spent a lot of time going through and really evaluating what was important and working on what the real story was. There’s a balance, too, one of the members isn’t here anymore, so we also had to be a voice for him, too. I used a lot of stories from Mark’s girlfriend, Sabine Hrechdakian, who wasn’t on tour with them. She wasn’t in the band, but I relied on her to add another of decision to his character. So many music documentaries just focus on the “they were great, they were amazing,” and not say much else. I really wanted to get down to the bone on what these people had been though and how they interacted with each other.
Shuffle: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?
Mark: I hope they take away appreciation for the band. Even though it’s not my place to be the audience, but ultimately I hope it raises the profile of Morphine since it’s their legacy.
Shuffle: What sort of issues did you run into during the whole process?
Mark: I was given access to all the footage from their shows, most of which were on VHS. That was a challenge, going through and converting them to digital. There are a lot of things involved in making a doc about an international band – a lot of music rights. I didn’t use a narrator, which can make it harder to tell a story. It feels great that it has all come together. Even though I wasn’t backed by a huge production company, it was great to see that the film could stand on its own. Even before the Austin Film Festival knew about my connection to Austin, they were interested.
Shuffle: So, tell me a little about your background.
Mark: I went to film school at the University of Texas at Austin and got a bachelor’s of science in film. I went straight to Los Angeles and started working in the business. I quickly worked my way up to directing music videos, commercials, and some feature films. I’m not sure what’s next but I’ll figure it out. That’s one of the things about being a freelancer: you never know when or where your next job is.
Shuffle: What sort of advice would you give to someone considering film as a career path?
Mark: First I would say that you don’t have to have a degree to work in the film business. You either got it or you don’t. It’s a very demanding career and you have to be very passionate about it. What I would tell students just getting into it is to stick with it. Have fun with it. Film school is an amazing time. You have all the gear; you don’t have anyone breathing down your neck yet. It’s a time to make your project. Spend all your energy doing the best you can, because there’s not all the real world pressures and you have a real chance to be fertile and creative. I would also say get involved. Get involved with local film societies, any associations, get internships anywhere. Try to meet people and network. Try to get involved early on. Watch movies. If you want to be in the film business, watch movies. Find a mentor – try to find someone who can help you navigate and achieve what it is you want to do. Also understand that it’s going to take multiple years of work to get anywhere, 99 percent of people have to put in that work after you get the degree.
Shuffle: Last question – what’s the best advice you have ever received?
Mark: I think it would have to be the golden rule. Treat others how you want to be treated.